Dancing USA April / May
The Big ‘Mo’
Momentum Your Friend Not Foe
By Jeff Allen
I was very pleased to receive a phone call from Michael Fitzmaurice the new publisher and editor of Dancing USA magazine requesting that I write a series of articles that address the fundamentals of dance. We had discussed the importance of fundamentals as they applied to activities ranging from golf to basketball to ice dancing to business to politics. Success, we agreed, is never achieved in any endeavor without the ability to master the fundamentals. Reliance on the fundamentals is what can be learned from people such as Michael Jordan or Billy Sparks. Champions are those who execute their basic technique perfectly and THEN add the dimension of there own inimitable style!
Fundamentals apply to dancers at every level: pros, teachers, students, and beginners. It is my hope, that this article will be the opening of continuing dialogue where frank discussions and ideas about the various issues of technique in partner dancing can be brought to light to help improve each Dancing USA reader’s quality of dancing. As a teacher, I am a firm advocate that students should be shown qualitative technique from the beginning of their dance experience. Then it is left to their feeling of passion and fervor for dance to practice and obtain the level to which they aspire.
There are literally thousands of dance figures and they do have the ability to seduce, don’t they? The liberty to dance the figures you want to is wholly based on the fundamentals. Because choreography is only 10% of the social dance experience, it is the fundamentals of timing and balance with and without partner that lead to smooth dancing. Technique is the shortcut to the choreography!
This lesson will be concerned with momentum. Technically, we can describe momentum as the impetus, or force with which a dancer or dance couple tends to maintain their velocity overcoming resistance. What a mouthful! We sit passively in an automobile not aware that we are moving until that vehicle breaks sharply. Then the passengers of the vehicle immediately discover they are indeed moving and are able to add their own definition to momentum. An automobile provides us with a seatbelt to offset the force of momentum when it is least expected. Let’s proceed to explore some of the impact that momentum has on your dancing and the devices we possess to offset its negative effects.
The Problem: The dancer cannot “keep-up,” with the music or has difficulty changing directions.
Because we are prone to exaggeration when learning physical skills, the inclination is to move our feet too far from our center. This is especially true when learning the varieties of Swing, owing to the speed of the music and the anticipated movement. Too often, our bodies become trapped for a moment between our feet and the dancer resorts to the use of their shoulders and upper-body to propel themselves to the next position. Unfortunately, this produces excessive momentum away from their center and frequently the dance floor. Without good floor pressure and contact the student can keep, neither good timing nor can they remain dependable during leads and follows. The excesses of momentum in the upper body will cause moment-to-moment losses of balance and the natural instincts of self-preservation will create the need to hang or pull on your partner. Does any of this sound familiar?
First, The instinctive relationship between the brain and the dancer’s foot is very simple and very important for any dancer to understand. Whenever the ball of the moving foot strikes the dance floor the body of the dancer stops its flight or progression. This haunts a beginner because it leaves them with their weight distribution between their feet. Here are some of the results of this erroneous foot placement:
· Which foot is next? This is never a question that the dancer has time to answer as their dancing will become erratic, slow, and off time.
· The error that finds the body not fully supported over one foot or the other will become part of your physical memory.
· The moving foot that traveled too far becomes ineffective and void of the compression necessary to continue to move the body. Instinctively, the dancer will revert to swaying their shoulders to generate the momentum and change of direction necessary for the body to get to the next foot. This bad habit lends itself to creating a top-heavy dancer who will frequently find that they are pulling and yanking their partner.
So how do you prevent or cure this annoying bad habit in Swing dancing? Actually, it is simple; “Less is more !” The maximum distance a Swing dancer should separate the moving foot from the supporting foot approximates the width of their pelvis. For most people just around 10 inches works fine. This distance becomes your innate benchmark, which will allow for maximum stability, good rotational skills, and a fluid approach to the art of partner dancing.
I have never figured out why students try to take larger steps when the music’s tempo increases. The wheels on their automobiles just spin faster as speeds increase they do not become larger. To offset the bigger is faster problem I try to convey the notion of drifting to the side rather than any forced or reaching sidesteps. The Swinger’s energy is best expended in the area of knee flex and upper-leg compression, which in it of itself, helps to eliminate momentum and improves balance by using the direction of down as both a rhythmic and leveling device.
Second, learn to take you feet off the dance floor properly! The removal of any foot from the dance floor during a Swing dance should be accomplished by lifting the upper thigh with a light and swift movement of the hip and leg’s ball socket joint. This would be quite similar to the type of leg movement used pedaling a bicycle or ascending a staircase. When the upper leg is used to take the foot off the floor the body remains level and balanced. There is no undesirable sway accumulated in the shoulders or ribcage that will require problematic compensations Many that dance at nightclubs, dance studios, etc. do their Swing dancing too FLAT-FOOTED or SHUFFLING! Flat-footed dancing creates unwarranted friction. The result of this flat-footed dancing is that the couples have to travel too far and have built too much momentum in their upper-bodies. Now they are unable to control their space on the dance floor and frankly, they are too slow to be effective for Swing music with some pace to it.
The Problem: Transitional and partnering abilities are lost during the Swing Rock owing to much too much backwards momentum!
Pulling your partner’s arm out of joint on the rock step is a problem that should be left in past once you have taken some Swing lessons. This is strictly part of your old dancing that I call, “Slingshot Swing!” You would never know that we are a civilized culture by observing the way some people launch each other from place to place on the dance floor until someone nearly or does get hurt.
The body’s back movement on the 1st beat of the Swing Rock is the concluding action of the present figure and should include the transition to begin the next Swing figure as the couple’s bodies recover towards each other on the 2nd beat. This idea requires both mental and physical concentration – here is the most important moment in any Swing figure or pattern! To insure that this happens the momentum of the present figure should cease by the Swing Rock’s beginning. When the dancers are converging rather than separating on the 2nd beat of the Rock action they gain much better control in transition to the next figure as well as control of their space on the dance floor. Here are a few ideas that I would like to share with you to improve the control of your Swing Rock:
Begin movement to the non-supporting or moving foot on the way down and never on the way upwards
Travel between the feet while compressing or flexing into the knees
Feel that the backward movement begins at your waistline and moves below and not at your shoulder line.
The first point to feel contact is at, “The Magic Part of the Foot,” for the back step of the Swing Rock. In my book, Quickstart to Swing I define the, “Magic Part of the Foot,” as a theoretical point located equidistant between the ball of the foot and the big toe. Contact is made with both these points at the same time creating the stoppage of backward momentum allowing for smooth transition through the knees and pelvis.
Foxtrot & Waltz:
Problem: Losing balance at the top of the rise creating spatial problems with the following progressive step.
I often apologize to new students of these two dances for having to introduce them to one of the most difficult physical concepts in ballroom dancing so early in their experience. Never the less they must learn to close their feet at the top of the rise, change weight, and release their free foot to the next position while lowering through the new supporting leg. Here the momentum is vertical and its control or lack of it is contingent upon the rhythmic usage of the dancer’s legs!
It is ironic that many people sign up at a dance studio because they feel they have NO rhythm and therefore cannot dance. Students then proceed to learn choreographic content while remaining in the dark with respect to rhythm. I hope I can help here by teaching that RISE is a rhythmic skill and not just an issue of straightening your legs. Without an understanding of two basic fundamental techniques in dance, namely plié and relevé, rhythm is literally lost as the vertical energy is sent up into the shoulders. This generally creates a struggle for balance in the new dancer.
In its simplest form, a plié is a compressive action while the knee bends. The bending knee stores energy in the quadriceps and feels very powerful similar to the tension that exists at the end of the pulling of a bow or an elastic. This happens to a certain degree on every step of Foxtrot or Waltz where lowering is involved. As a side note, the connotation that the word ‘fall’ gives really irks many teachers. When you sit in a chair, you ‘let go,’ of knee flex – this is NOT feeling the plié. The lowering into the plié stores the energy for the following rise (body direction that is upward) so that no power needs to be added.
A relevé or a straightening of the knees can only be achieved by virtue of a plié. This action is the smooth and controlled release of the energy from the knees to the hips (if the hips rise obviously the whole torso rises). The speed of this release is your rhythmic rise. This action is effortless as long as the abdominal muscles keep the ribcage over the hips. This rise is never forced out of the ankles! Beginning rise from the ankles is the symptomatic action and major sin by those that claim they have no rhythm. Next time you practice rise feel your hamstrings (the back of the upper leg) pushing you upwards through your hips. Your new rhythmic rise is not felt in an area of your torso any higher than the sternum. Additionally, the end of the rise retains a portion of that stored energy. Rhythm exists in the operational parameters of the leg muscles and not in the hyperextensions of the knees or ankles.
In conclusion, here is some ‘food for thought.” A dancer needs to seriously consider the movements of up and down as directions that will defeat the negative influences of momentum, particularly at the conclusion of any progressive or lateral dance steps. Retaining the flex or compression in the upper thighs as you travel will increase the mobility of your knees and ankles. Mentally focusing on the operation of the center of your leg muscles rather than the joints will certainly improve your rhythmic skills, balance, and movement – remember muscles dance, bones don’t!
Until the next time, happy dancing. – Jeff Allen